Election Casts an Uncertain Future for South America’s Newest Petro-State

By: Jadalyn Eagens

Guyana is the third poorest country in South America with a population of about 780,000 people, roughly four times the population of Madison. The former British sugar colony recently discovered oil 120 miles off its coast, the timing of which coincided with the country’s presidential elections, which took place on March 2. Guyana is at a critical turning point because there is a possibility for the nation to manufacture a complete economic turnaround that lifts the nation out of poverty. However, everything is dependent on who will be in power when the oil profits start rolling into the country. It will be their decisions that determine whether the country becomes prosperous or if it follows the unfortunate fate of other oil producing nations, such as Venezuela and Nigeria, that face problems with corruption.

Voting in Guyana is split down ethnic lines, the two major ethnicities being the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese. Additionally, there is a small population of Indigenous Guyanese who are considered to be the swing voters in the election. The Afro-Guyanese make up 30 percent of the population while the Indo-Guyanese make up 40 percent of the population, and the Indigenous Guyanese make up about 10 percent of the population. The current governing body, known as A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), is supported by the Afro-Guyanese. Their choice candidate, President David Granger, was seeking re-election for a second term. However, he was being opposed by Irfaan Ali of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), which is supported by the Indo-Guyanese.

Elections took place in 2020 because in December 2018, President Granger lost a vote of no confidence in his government. This meant that elections would have to take place within the next 90 days; however, the election commission was unable to organize the elections for 2019, so they had to be stalled until 2020. Even though the president had a no confidence vote against him, many people seemed hesitant to put the PPP back into power because they governed Guyana for 23 years prior to Granger taking office in 2015. This period of time was said to be one of large-scale corruption and though President Granger is not free from allegations of graft, he is thought to be a more honest and transparent leader. 

Prior to the election, both Granger and Ali shared their strategies for what they would do with the oil profits. The BBC reported that Granger promised, if elected, he would distribute the money through “cash transfers for the purchase of essential items” and “conditional cash transfers for single parents, public transit and elder care, among other items.” Similarly, Ali has supported “targeted cash transfers geared towards the elderly, children, and the poor, and the use of revenues to improve health care, reduce taxes, and save for future generations.”

On the day of the general elections, March 2, when the governing party was announced as the winner, chaos ensued. The opposition took to the streets to protest, blocking streets and burning tires. According to the New York Times, the “catalyst” for the strong objections were because the electoral commission released unverified results that “propelled the ruling party from trailing to slightly ahead in the vote count.” The release of this information was in violation of a court order and ended up being criticized by not only the opposition party, but also by four groups of international observers and the main western embassies (the United States, Canada, Britain, and the European Union) in Guyana. These parties argued that the process broke the country’s laws and lacked transparency. One of the international observers also went so far as to accuse the electoral commission of allowing “attempts to perpetuate electoral fraud.” The results of the election pose a threat to democracy and the PPP tries to lobby the electoral commission for a full recount, which is currently taking place. Nevertheless, there is a general fear that whichever party wins the elections could “govern for decades,” undermining the other party’s access to the oil wealth. 

The political tension creates instability in a nation that is on the brink of prosperity and economic turnaround. The government’s weakness provides many opportunities for foreign investors and companies to take advantage, short changing the nation what it is owed. Guyana partnered with ExxonMobil to produce about 750,000 oil barrels per day, and the IMF expects that by 2024, oil will constitute 40 percent of the nation’s GDP. This presses upon the need for Guyana’s political leadership to be strong and the ethnic divisions ameliorated to prevent the country from falling into the “oil curse” of corruption.